From my train-track-side camping spot, I rose with the sun and jumped over the fence back to the road into the city.
I had slept there because I couldn’t find an open Wi-Fi signal to find a hostel, as I do whenever I enter a new city. But I had finally found one outside a hotel, so I sat there looking homeless (again) and arranged to meet my next host, Igor, in the evening.
Tashkent seemed like a clean, recently modernized city. On the center anyway. It was terribly hot, and so dry that my sweat dried instantly. I was very quickly out of water and had no local currency.
Economic crisis following the collapse of the Soviet Union meant that banks and ATMs had no money. It is not possible to leave the country with more money than you entered it with. The only way to get local currency was to exchange US Dollars. Luckily, I had $100 with me, as I do everywhere I go. 800,000 somoni were handed to me, I was almost a millionaire.
I met Igor outside his local supermarket. He was Russian-born, but living here. He had the typical cold demeaner, but of course the warm heart too. He let me stay in his room while he slept on the sofa for two nights.
He showed me two of his favorite cafes, which produced excellent variations on plov – the rice, beef and carrot national food. The bill came to $1.50 for the both of us, so I paid for everything, feeling even more like a rich man; I was one in Uzbekistan.
The hot weather had got to me and I was suffering from mild heat exhaustion, so I decided to make the 14km walk out of the city after dark.
I found out four nights too late that I was supposed to register with a hotel every third night of my stay. I came to the police checkpoint at the outskirts of the city and didn’t want to risk going any further. Igor told me I could have problems when I leave the border. Best case, I get a week in prison.
I found some half-built houses, which I thought looked fine, but as I walked in with my headtorch, a man called out to me in a groggy voice. I turned around almost out of reflex and walked away. His voice grew angrier and my legs moved faster.
Across the road, I found a field with trash scattered and some concrete pillars that had been dumped there. I didn’t bother getting any camping equipment out, I just put all of my warm layers on and curled into a ball. I slept surprisingly well, and the starry night was one of the clearest I’d ever seen.
The next day I woke naturally with the sunrise and as I emerged from the scattered blocks, I saw a man doing some kind of work in the field. I was lucky I didn’t get everything out of my backpack! I shoved my layers in as tidily as I could and waited until his back was turned for me to escape. I made it about 100 meters before he began calling to me, but I ignored him and sped up. He could well have just been curious, maybe he wanted to invite me for tea, but I didn’t want to take the risk because I probably wasn’t allowed in this space.
The first ride I caught on the way to Samarkand was from a man delivering some wooden panels to a house. While he was unloading I met the family’s children.
‘Have you ever seen an English person?’ asked the driver, interrogating the children who were staring at me as if I had two heads.
One of them shook his head while the other remained in a confused trance. After a while they regained their normal expressions again and could look at something other than me. I taught them the ‘fist bump’ and ‘high-five’ and gave them some London Underground tickets (I had no sweets or anything better to give them).
The truck driver took me most of the way, but there was still another 80km to go. I stood for about 20 minutes with my thumb out when the two men pulled in and said they could take me all the way there.
They invited me to stay the night at their house in the small village just before it. They took me for a meal and made sure I was more than full before we left the restaurant.
Back at their house I found myself running around the place with the 6-year-old son, both of us holding bits of wood we used as guns. It was great to be a kid again.
Just before bed, my hosts asked if I could help them to get a visa to visit the UK. I thought they wanted help with the form or a letter of invitation, but they asked me to send them the physical visa in the post. I don’t have that power!
The next morning, I was given some bread and jam for breakfast, which would be condoments for a grueling show. I’d never seen a chicken being slaughtered before, but I couldn’t look away. It is true that the head and body remain able to move independent of each other after separation.
They paid for a taxi to the city, refusing to let me hitchhike.
My first task on arrival was to find a place to stay. As I walked through the late-summer heat with everything stuck my back and sweat waterfalling from my forehead, I caught my first sight of the ancient buildings. I have never quite understood the phrase ‘take my breath away’, but seeing them today, I experienced this for the first time.